Delectable meals were always a treat during those sweltering summer days

June 14, 2008|By Jacques Kelly

This week's hot spell made me think of some of the hot-weather culinary customs my family observed. On a brutal Baltimore afternoon in July, my mother would roast a turkey or pork loin in a nonair-conditioned kitchen. She would say, "Don't think about the heat." After all, she'd probably been shopping earlier in the day on Howard Street, on foot, and carrying her shopping bags home.

Her mother, my grandmother Lily Rose, who grew up with a wood-fired stove, did not like to light her Oriole gas oven after this time of the year. When she returned from her summer vacation, she gradually resumed its use. She claimed she hated hot weather but did a fine job of rising to the occasion.

A cold dinner would have been a heresy. I can't remember a cold meal, except for crab salad, maybe tuna salad on meatless Fridays.

The preferred summer cooking utensil was a black, cast-iron frying pan. This time of the year, my grandmother, who was the uncomplaining chief cook, used it daily in the era when outdoor grills were exotic and would have been excessively modern for Guilford Avenue.

She was a champion seafood preparer, renowned for her way with fish in a frying pan. Every Thursday afternoon, a gentleman known only as Mr. DiBlasi deposited two bags of seafood in the front hall vestibule. By Friday afternoon, the kitchen smelled like a Crisfield seafood restaurant, down to the hand-cut french fries, cooked in Crisco.

This part of June is high soft-crab season. As a child - and frankly as an adult - I never touched one. But I loved the sight of them, watery green, squiggling in seaweed, in a wood crate. I think of the general commotion when the alley huckster called out "Soft crabs!"

Lily's frying pan also worked wonders with steaks and hamburgers, but I also think of summer scrapple dinners with sliced tomatoes and homemade potato salad. Lily also made her own ketchup for the scrapple, but that's another story. She produced this spice-redolent ketchup in the late summer, when tomatoes were cheap. The supply often didn't last the winter.

She also fried chicken livers, lamb chops, beef liver and lamb kidneys, considered a delicacy by some under our roof. She fried tomatoes and eggplant. She would not bake beans in the summer, but canned beans and hot dogs got us through on some hot nights. She also fried chicken and slices of ham.

We were 12 or 13 around the table at this time and the old GE refrigerator had a capacity of two or three ice trays. Somehow, there was always just enough ice to go around for Lily's iced tea, made precisely at 1 in the afternoon. She hated tea bags and would only employ loose tea, lemons and sugar, along with so much boiling water the kitchen seemed like a warm bathroom. The tea took a full four hours to steep and achieve its delicious flavor.

The oven ban also applied to cakes. Those unfortunate enough to have summer birthdays didn't suffer much. Alongside the kitchen telephone was a list of emergency numbers. Leading the column was Madison 0931, telephone code for Fiske's, the great Park Avenue confectioner, whose bakers and ice cream makers could tame a broiling July evening.


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